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November 29, 2004
MBL Scientists Embark on International Effort to Uncover Microbial Diversity in World's Oceans
First global effort to acquire information about diversity and distribution of single-celled organisms and associated viruses

Lyngbya (ling-bee-a) is a cyanobacterium that forms filaments from many  disc-shaped cells joined end to end. The filaments can be huge, dwarfing not only many protists but also many metazoa. Lyngbya filaments are photosynthetic, and - like many cyanobacteria - can glide slowly. Cyanobacteria are probably the oldest recognizable organisms on Earth - traceable back to fossils that are over 3 billion years old. Some cyanobacteria  produce toxins and some have nitrogen-fixing abilities.  Image taken using phase contrast optics. This picture was taken by David Patterson, Linda Amaral Zettler and Virginia Edgcomb of material from the salt marsh at Little Sippewissett (Massachusetts, USA).

WOODS HOLE, MA—In an unprecedented effort to catalog the Earth's known marine microbes, and explore the ocean's yet untold microbial diversity, Mitchell L. Sogin, Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory's (MBL'S) Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, and Jan W. de Leeuw, Senior Scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), have launched the International Census of Marine Microbes, the first global effort to focus on the biodiversity of single-celled organisms in the world's oceans.

The project is part of the 10-year, $1 billion Census of Marine Life, a massive collaboration to catalog and map marine species worldwide involving hundreds of scientists in more than 70 countries. The International Census of Marine Microbes (or ICoMM) project is supported with a seed grant of $900,000 from the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan, Jr., then president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corporation. The Sloan Foundation has been a primary supporter of the ambitious Census of Marine Life project since its inception nearly five years ago.

The world’s oceans are teeming with microscopic life forms. Most of the Earth’s biodiversity is microbial in nature, particularly in the oceans where microorganisms account for more than 90 percent of the biomass. For more than three billion years, these creatures have mediated critical processes that shaped the planet’s habitability.

The goal of ICoMM is to report what is known, what is unknown but knowable, and what may never be known about the biodiversity of marine microorganisms by 2010. In addition to cataloging existing and discovering new organisms, the project aims to understand the evolutionary and ecological processes by which marine microbial diversity has been created and is maintained. The project marks the first global effort to acquire information about diversity and distribution of single-celled organisms and associated viruses from the three domains of life in the world’s oceans—Bacteria, Archaea, and Protista. “Given the vast marine microbial diversity existing in the world’s oceans, with approximately one million microbes per milliliter of seawater and one billion bacteria per gram of sediment, this plan to develop a database on marine microbes linked to genomic and other data is an extremely critical and timely venture,” said Sogin.

ICoMM joins a dozen other Census of Marine Life (CoML) research projects currently underway around the world. Unlike other CoML initiatives that focus on geographical locations or restricted environments, ICoMM will embrace a world-wide strategy to explore the diversity and distribution patterns of all kinds of single-cell organisms in marine environments. “Understanding the diversity of marine microbes is a mega-science problem that requires new approaches to mapping diversity, grand strategies, integration of diverse communities, and enabling studies that will explore processes—whether ecological or evolutionary,” said Sogin. “A problem of this magnitude requires careful planning and international cooperation.”

Over the next two years, ICoMM organizers will focus on building a framework for the mammoth undertaking. Led by Sogin and de Leeuw, a core group of investigators from the MBL, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology will coordinate ICoMM’s scientific activities. The organizers have assembled an advisory committee and three working groups of marine microbiologists charged with developing research priorities and experimental plans. In addition, the MBL team is about to begin work on a database that will organize and manage the unprecedented volume of morphological and molecular data IcoMM will produce.

Sogin and his colleagues expect to eventually support pilot projects with the potential to shape larger-scale research initiatives in marine microbial diversity. Their hope is that these projects will generate additional support from governmental agencies and private foundations. “The scope of ICoMM’s activities by 2010 will be proportional to available resources from foundations and governmental funding agencies,” Sogin noted. “The dynamic range of resource requirements for science to be promoted by ICoMM will range from tens of millions to multiple billions of dollars.”


The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is an internationally known, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. The MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution explores the evolution and interaction of genomes of diverse organisms that play significant roles in environmental biology and human health. This dynamic research program integrates the powerful tools of genome science, molecular phylogenetics, and molecular ecology to advance our understanding of how living organisms are related to each other, to provide the tools to quantify and assess biodiversity, and to identify genes and underlying mechanisms of biomedical importance. Projects span all evolutionary time scales, ranging from deep phylogenetic divergence of ancient eukaryotic and prokaryotic lineages, to ecological analyses of how members of diverse communities contribute and respond to environmental change. Three interlocking programs define the scope of research in the Bay Paul Center: the Program in Global Infectious Diseases, the Program in Molecular Evolution, and the Program in Molecular Microbial Diversity.

The Census of Marine Life is a growing global network of researchers in more than 70 nations engaged in a ten-year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans -- past, present, and future.